Texas Inmate Health Care Fee of $100 Upheld

     (CN) - Texas does not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution in requiring prisoners to pay an annual $100 fee for medical services, the 5th Circuit ruled.
     Robert Charles Morris has been an inmate in the Texas correctional system since 2005.
     He allegedly suffers from a chronic knee condition that requires renewing prescription medications every six months.
     Under Texas law, every inmate "who initiates a visit to a health care provider shall pay a health care services fee to the [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] in the amount of $100."
     The fee, which was only $3 until raised to the current $100 in 2011, covers all visits to a health care provider for one year, and is automatically deducted from the inmate's trust fund.
     If the inmate does not have enough money to cover the balance, "50 percent of each deposit to the fund shall be applied toward the balance owed until the total amount owed is paid," according to the law codified at Section 501.063(a)(1).
     The law also expressly states, however, that an inmate may not be denied health care if they are unable to pay the fee.
     Morris challenged the $100 fee in court, calling it "a medical co-pay" against Texas prisoners or wards in violation of the Fourth and Eighth Amendments, as well as the due process clause of the 14th Amendment and the ex post facto clause.
     He said the department should allow prisoners to keep a "modest balance" in their accounts to buy necessary toiletries at the commissary, but does not state which essential toiletry items the department does not provide to inmates.
     A federal judge dismissed the suit, however, and the 5th Circuit affirmed Monday, finding no showing of deliberately indifference to Morris' medical needs.
     "Morris has not alleged that he is denied medical care. He also has not pled sufficient facts to show that the health care services fee acts as a functional denial of medical care, by requiring him to obtain either medical care or basic necessities," Judge Carolyn King wrote for the three-judge panel (italics in original).
     The court said it was not convinced by a statement in Department of Corrections v. Sisters of St. Francis, a 1992 Texas state appellate case, that "[t]he right of an incarcerated prisoner to free medical care is recognized both under Texas statute and under the United States Constitution."
     King added: "The fact that the prison regulations and statutes analyzed by other courts in similar cases impose smaller fees than that in § 501.063 is not dispositive. All inmates are guaranteed medical care regardless of ability to pay, and half of all deposits into inmates' trust fund accounts is reserved for their use, even if there is a negative balance due to payment of a health care services fee."
     The health fee also services a legitimate government purpose, according to the ruling.
     "Morris has not shown that the taking of funds from his inmate trust fund account to pay for his medical care was unreasonable in light of the goal of controlling the prison budget," King wrote. "Therefore, Morris has not established that the district court erred in denying relief on his Fourth Amendment claim."
     Texas also gave inmates adequate notice of the fee hike via posted notices in the prison, the 20-page opinion states.